New revelations that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel aren't simply straining Washington's relationship with Berlin. They're also sparking an increasingly public fight between the State Department and the NSA, with the nation's spies and the nation's diplomats trading shots about who's responsible for the mess.
"This is a pretty serious embarrassment for the U.S., and as top officials try to protect their agencies and their reputations, they are not sticking with their talking points," a former senior U.S. official told The Cable.
Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA's overseas surveillance efforts -- which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain -- had been carried out without the Obama administration's knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House's emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.
"The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," Kerry told a conference in London. "In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."
General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, responded by putting responsibility for the spying efforts squarely on the State Department itself. He said diplomats around the world were asking for information about the "leadership intentions" of top foreign officials, and that his agency was simply trying to respond to those intelligence requests.
Alexander, according to a report in The Guardian, was responding to a series of sharp-edged questions from James Carew Rosapepe, a former American ambassador to Romania. Rosapepe had asked the general to explain how U.S. national security interests justified the NSA's spying efforts on "democratically elected leaders and private businesses."
"That is a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don't come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements," Alexander said. "One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh: ambassadors."
This isn't the first time that the Obama administration has seen high-level disagreements play out in public, of course. In December 2009, President Obama announced plans to send tens of thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan but stressed that they were being sent to carry out a narrow counter-terrorism mission targeting al-Qaeda terrorists, not a broader counter-insurgency mission. Within days, top military officials began to publicly and privately say they were going to undertake a counter-insurgency approach anyway.
The increasingly-heated NSA debate is different, however, because it risks doing long-term damage to key White House relationships with foreign leaders like Merkel as well as long-term damage to the relationship between the administration and the spies it entrusts with protecting the nation from new terror attacks.
Foreign Policy reported earlier this month that senior NSA officials, including Alexander, were angry at the White House for failing to do more to defend the spy agency from criticism of its surveillance efforts on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals. The administration, meanwhile, has seemed blind-sided by the continuing revelations about secret NSA spying programs at home and abroad.
The White House had two basic choices for how to respond: argue that Obama knew about the programs and approved them, which risked further infuriating key American allies, or say that he was unaware of the NSA's efforts, which risked painting a picture of a surprisingly out-of-touch commander in chief. For the moment, the administration seems to have settled on the latter.
P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman, said the administration has had a hard time settling on a PR strategy because it doesn't know how many more disclosures are yet to come, or precisely what will be in them.
"There's a drip, drip, drip that makes categorical statements in response to the latest news report risky," he told The Cable. "At what point do you have a sense that you know what you're dealing with so you can start to repair and rebuild? From a diplomatic standpoint, you can only start those repairs when the shovel stops digging a deeper hole."
Crowley helped craft the State Department's response to the initial WikiLeaks disclosures, but said that was relatively easy compared to the ongoing disclosures of once-classified NSA documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"During WikiLeaks we had months to assess the damage and see what was in the archive," he said. "For the moment, with Snowden, it's hard to know if we're closer to the end or the beginning."